The (somewhat) rational basis for the US-Israel alliance

As the Gaza crisis intensified, I’m sure I’m not alone in having wondered why the US’s support for Israel is so absolutely unconditional. What’s in it for America? Hasn’t it reached a point where Israel is a liability and should be cut loose?

This post is an attempt to account for the seeming unshakability of the US-Israel alliance, on the basis of what would seem like good reasons to the bipartisan political elite. It seems that the core “US interest” motivating it is the desire to maintain the overall stability of the global capitalist system, which means assuring an uninterrupted flow of oil from the main oil-producing region on earth. Please note that it’s not a question of the US itself directly wanting to steal the oil or something — it’s maintaining the overall equilibrium of the global system in which US corporations and the US military operate.

Once it is conceded that this goal makes sense, the politics of the Mideast do not look promising. You’ve got a lot of potentially hostile factions, some nationalistic, some religious, some a combination of both. The borderlines drawn as part of the decolonization process don’t help, but redrawing them would likely lead to instability and conflict. The religious element is a further problem — an Islamic state is likely to have goals other than the free flow of capital and to be less susceptible to the kinds of incentives the US can offer. Hence: lockdown. Anyone who can keep the oil flowing and keep a lid on the population gets US support.

Yet — and here’s where it gets even uglier, if that were possible — all those dictators, whatever their other merits, are swarthy Arabs. How can (racist) Americans trust such people? Better to go with the more natural ally: Israel, which is led by people who are basically white Westerners. This element of trust became all the more essential after the end of the Cold War, when Saddam Hussein demonstrated that even previously faithful clients can go rogue. Similarly, we can assume that the importance of the alliance with Israel only increased when the Arab Spring called into question the Americans’ traditional methods of controlling political outcomes in the Mideast.

On their side, as the political situation in the Mideast destabilizes, Israel sees increasingly clearly that they are the only game in town for the US and that they can basically do whatever they want without endangering their aid or privileged status. And so the vicious cycle continues.

Does anyone have a better explanation?

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22 Responses to “The (somewhat) rational basis for the US-Israel alliance”

  1. clown prince Says:

    It’s not clear to me how the alliance with Israel helps hold the equilibrium of the system.

    In any case, oil-flow and strong-man backed stability has been the strategic goal of the US since the end of WWII, but the current, ridiculous phase of the US-Israeli relationship is actually fairly recent.

  2. Adam Kotsko Says:

    It’s an ever-present threat, on Mideast soil.

  3. Adam Kotsko Says:

    And I believe I account in the post for why Israel’s importance has grown in the last couple decades.

  4. bultmanniac Says:

    Doesn’t the overall stability of the global capitalist system rely on the instability of the Middle East and Africa (fewer superpowers, more “greedy dictators,” etc)? Wouldn’t it make more sense that the US-Israel alliance existed precisely to cause instability within the region?

  5. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Weirdly, though, the US attempts to impose stability on the (under current conditions, intrinsically) unstable Mideast, while it makes no such effort in sub-Saharan Africa. This leads me to believe that the system needs stability in the Mideast.

  6. henadology Says:

    But Israel doesn’t have any oil, and I don’t see how Israel being there helps us to control the countries in the region that do.

  7. Adam Kotsko Says:

    By having decisively defeated their combined forces in the 1960s and having only gotten stronger since?

  8. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Making peace with Israel a condition of US aid also ensures that the people we buy off are really and truly total sell-outs.

  9. henadology Says:

    But during that whole time we were also supporting strongman regimes in all the oil producing nations; seems like a duplication of effort.

  10. Adam Kotsko Says:

    And during the Cold War, when that strategy was working relatively well, our support for Israel was less unconditional.

  11. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Is it really difficult to understand why having an actual nation-state whose continued existence depends on holding the other Mideast powers at bay is preferable to either (a) direct US occupation or (b) paying off one of the other powers and hoping for the best? It’s not like opportunistic imperial clients never sell out their patrons — but Israel has an intrinsic reason to help keep a lid on the Mideast.

  12. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Is it also difficult to understand why the US would take a “belt and suspenders” (i.e., Israel + paid-off dictators) approach to its central foreign policy priority?

  13. Nikos Says:

    Yes, I would broadly agree. But if the rationale was purely economic, presumably there wouldn’t be any need for an Israel Lobby. Turkey, a NATO ally, fulfills much of the same role geostrategically, and it would be strange to consider the US couldn’t have cultivated similar arab allies like it has done in Latin America (Colombia, Chile…) to keep a lock on the region. Four obvious factors that are relevant have to be the population of the United States who identify strongly with Zionism. Their economic and creative role and the impact that has on the ruling class, campaign contributions, swing voters in Florida etc…. The growth of Zionism from a minority to a majoritarian position within the Jewish community concurrent with the rapid spread of an apocalyptic Christian Zionism. Finally, Israel’s own latent nuclear capacity – exactly how do you reign in a nuclear power?. South Africa is the example which none of the aforementioned applied to. Finally, Western guilt over the Judeocide of the second world war. All of these factors fall together in a strange and uncanny way and are seemingly reinforcing.

  14. amaryahshaye Says:

    Hmmm, I’ve also think whiteness is what holds the union together. That is, post-WWII, rather than actually ending white supremacy, since the war was a logical outcome and extension of those ideas, Israel was invited into the good ol’ boys club of whiteness. The US has to be loyal to Israel because it’s loyal to Whiteness.

  15. ess emm Says:

    Nikos is right when he talks about the mutually reinforcing growth of Zionism from a minority to a majoritarian position within the Jewish community and the rapid spread of an apocalyptic Christian Zionism. Couple that with an unrelenting hasbara that paints any criticism of Israel as anti-semitism, and the Palestinian/Arabs as religious extremists/terrorists and there’s your unconditional support.

    The unconditional support for an apartheid state is astonishing because the continuing Israeli-Palestinian conflict directly damages US interests in the region.

  16. nonmanifestation Says:

    I’m not sure US strategy on Israel-Palestine can be understood as a rational strategy for the US as a whole, as opposed to rational strategies on the part of individual members of the US elite. (Just as the crash showed that the behaviour of big investment firms can’t be understood as rational behaviour of the firms as such, but only of their executives stealing as much shit from the firms, their customers, and the government as possible.) Adam’s explanation is plausible as a rationalization of their strategy that members of the US elite tell to each other or themselves (if they even feel the need to rationalize their behaviour to themselves), but I’m not sure that the presence of Israel actually does contribute to the stability of the ME (in the limited sense of keeping the oil flowing under discussion here). It seems like the existence of Israel gives ammunition to the enemies of the US-backed dictators of the region (the MB used this against Mubarak for years), and having millions of dispossessed young men roaming the region provides militant groups with a huge pool to recruit from. Apparently even the NSA regards Israel as one of the biggest threats to “US security” (https://firstlook.org/theintercept/2014/08/04/cash-weapons-surveillance/).
    Explanations in terms of the individual benefits of supporting Israel for members of the US elite are probably more useful. Campaign donations from pro-Israel groups of course is a big one, and also the possibility of giving billions of dollars in defense contracts to one’s friends/future employers, collecting bribes in return for those contracts, etc., etc. But that only pushes the question back one step further: how did the Israel lobby/defense industry get so powerful in the first place, to the point where supporting Israel is infinitely more profitable for members of the US elite than opposing it?

  17. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Certainly it’s not rational for “the US as a whole.” I appreciate the comments on the importance of lobbying, Jewish-American groups’ loyalty to Israel, and Christian Zionism — the latter factor only seems to have become a big thing starting in the 90s, which tracks well with when the alliance grew more and more unconditional. It’s possible that there was a bandwagon effect, too, where the success of the Israel Lobby (and various allied forces) begot more success. Still, I think it has to have a root in (what the bipartisan political elite regards as) genuine US priorities for this dynamic to get started in the first place.

  18. Adam Kotsko Says:

    It’s hard to do this kind of thought experiment without coming across as though I’m defending the policy on the merits. I hope it’s clear that I’m not in favor of imperialism and racism — I just think it’s important, strategically speaking, to think through the forces that make a terrible policy make sense to decision-makers.

  19. Ben Says:

    Oh I think I see what you’re saying Adam. I’m not sure the reason for the US to be committed to Israel has to be strictly ‘genuine’ or rational. The reason the US recognized Israel in the first instance was due to the Holocaust and the political and electoral pressures Harry Truman came under from the Israel Lobby at the time (which begs the question, what was driving the Israel Lobby? – I emailed a book). All of these other rationalizations were in a sense self seeded after the fact, Western guilt, geostrategic importance (o combat Arab nationalism, paradoxically strengthening Islamic fundamentalism) , capital investment in Israel (largely defence), lobbying, Christian Zionism, etc..

  20. nonmanifestation Says:

    “US as a whole” was a poor choice of words, what I meant was that I don’t think you can even make sense of US policy on Israel-Palestine as a strategy of pursuing “US interests”; only the individual decisions of members of the US elite will actually make sense, and they will work to influence overall US strategy in accordance with their personal strategies. (Obviously the US interests in question don’t have much to do with the interests of people who live in the US in general.)
    Of course I don’t think you’re advocating the policy, I just think that if the decision-makers were making their decisions on this subject based on considerations of US interests, as in your explanation, they would be irrational to support Israel unconditionally as they do; whereas this decision is probably rational in the short term at least, if your goal is to assure your personal wealth and power.

  21. Christopher Rodkey Says:

    To piggyback on a couple themes here, and probably not really offering anything novel, thinking out loud, this is something I’ve been pondering since spending a little time in Israel earlier this year. As said above, it seems to me that the way we have constructed our alliances is an aspect of whiteness that was revealed when Netanyahu had that public press forum a while back where he openly insulted President Obama–a soundbite that has been repeated over and over again on AM radio that “your president does not know what you’re talking about.” One message I heard in Israel from a few that I spoke with was a very similar message, and the Arab Muslims and Christians had a different perspective. Netanyahu got away with what he said not because he was right, but because he knows that whiteness is more powerful than the most politically powerful man in the world, that support of Israel transcends party lines in the US. And you talk to any middle of the road Christian in the US, they render middle-eastern Jews as “white.” Arabs not so much… in fact, many Christians I know are quite shocked that the majority of Christians living in Israel or Palestine are Arabs. Why? Because folks render Christians as “one of us,” not one of ‘them.’

    The lack of empathy for Palestine and the horror there, above and beyond the everyday horror, is experienced by whiteness as a surrogate scapegoat for what whiteness would deep down love to do to the rest of the Arab world, namely, cut off its water and destroy its infrastructure, gentrify and redraw borders like old-school colonial powers, and clearly render the terrorist other in more geographical terms than we are used to in the ongoing War on Terror.

  22. ambzone Says:

    I agree with nonmanifestation about there being a need for methodological individualism in treating the US-Israel special relationships. In all probability it’s a matter of what the Chinese call guanxi : donations, favors, political gamesmanship, and the comparative absence of Palestinian counter-pressure in those higher spheres.

    As distasteful as it can sometimes be, one cannot make do with an historical understanding of the times that discount with the disproportionate amount of political and financial capital hoarded by certain groups as opposed to others.


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